Updated: X-Plane 9 Review

X-Plane Version 9.01 just released, making improvements to the game’s frame rate and tweaking its interface. Unfortunately, there is no new content in terms of more aircraft, or places to fly them. Hopefully that will come before too long.

Another update to X-Plane, version 9.02 came out a couple of days ago. We’ve been looking forward to this release, with the hope that it would flesh out this sim. To a decent extent, this release does make X-Plane a more enjoyable experience. The addition of a map view makes navigation possible, and the addition of two more airports gives you something to navigate to.

Other changes include more control alignment options, as well as slightly improved terrain textures.

Unfortunately, there is still only one region to fly in, and the same four aircraft to choose from. So, while this is a solid incremental update, it doesn’t fundamentally change the sim. At the same time, this definitely shows that Laminar is actively pursuing further development, which is a great thing.

Version 9.03 of X-Plane is out, with a few notable additions.

The most noticeable is a new, fully featured control panel. This panel gives you a full suite of instruments, with artificial horizon, altimeter, etc. Further, the airports now have VOR and ILS. These are the radio-based systems that allow pilots to make instrument approaches in low visibility.

The developer brags that, with these changes, you can do flight instrument training on your iPhone.

We’ve added a video of X-Plane in action at the bottom of the review.

With two recent updates, Laminar Research has made significant improvements to X-Plane. The first improvement was the addition of more planes, with the addition of the Piper Malibu and the Beech King-Air, and the second was the inclusion of more places to fly.

Up to this point, you had your choice of anywhere in the world””so long as it was Innsbruck, Austria. Pilots can now choose from Hawaii, San Francisco, Southern California, or the old stomping grounds at Innsbruck.

The new locations are larger and more varied than Innsbruck, and are much more likely to be familiar territory. We certainly enjoyed flying around the Bay Area. We’ve flown* in and out of SFO enough times in real life to know what to expect, and the simulator doesn’t disappoint. Unfortunately, X-Plane doesn’t feature any buildings, bridges or other man-made landmarks. The program is pushing the device to the limits as it is.

In fact, we noticed a minor performance hit in this version. When flying at high speed, the simulator would sometimes start stuttering. We hadn’t noticed this defect previously, perhaps it’s related to the new, larger and more detailed terrain. It isn’t chronic, and goes away if you slow down a bit. We’re pretty sure it’s a simulator fault and not a desired behavior.

Setting that minor point aside, these last two updates are a big deal, and make this program a much more compelling offering. In light of these improvements, we’re revising our score upwards from a 2 to a 3.

* Mostly in coach. Business class a couple of times.

X-Plane has a long history of providing some of the most realistic and detailed flight simulation available on desktop computers, on over a thousand different aircraft–both real and imagined (Drawing from the vast user-community at www.x-plane.org and elsewhere.) . When bringing the simulator to the iPhone, the developers had to scale things down a bit. There are only four aircraft in this version, and the ability to design your own aircraft is absent. While the iPhone’s accelerometer controls are a natural fit for flying aircraft, and the graphics and sound are fantastic, X-Plane 9 doesn’t quite have enough content to merit a full recommendation.

The simulator starts with you in a Cirrus Jet, lined up for takeoff from LOWI field in Innsbruck, Austria. The default view is straight forward, with a superimposed heads-up display, which will be familiar to anyone who has played with a flight simulator. On the right side of the screen is a slider which controls your throttle, on the left a slider for flaps. At the bottom there are two buttons, one for brakes and the other for your landing gear. Tapping elsewhere on the screen brings up a menu of five different icons; these switch views, and give you access to the settings. The most impressive views of your flight are from the outside of the plane, which highlight the great aircraft graphics, but make it a bit tricky to fly. In any of the outside views, you can swipe your finger around the screen to move the camera, and pinch in or out to zoom.

After you swipe the throttle up to full, and start to accelerate down the runway, you’ll see that X-Plane has one of the very best implementations of the “iPhone as controller” setups that we’ve seen so far. You hold the your iPhone or iPod Touch in landscape orientation, just like a pilot holding the yoke of an airplane. Tilting backwards and forwards moves the elevator, and tilting the device left and right moves the ailerons. X-Plane 9 uses something called “blade element theory” to simulate the performance of an aircraft from first principles, rather than the fixed models that most flight simulators use. This endows your aircraft with highly realistic physics and controls.

The graphics in X-Plane are impressive both technically and artistically. The aircraft have a large amount of geometric and textured detail’”while they don’t look quite as real as the desktop incarnation, they are far beyond anything else we’ve seen to date on the iPhone. The only nit to pick about the aircraft graphics are the propellers, which seem to flutter and spasm, where they should be making a transparent disc.

The terrain, however, is not as impressive. The single region provided, modeled on Innsbruck, Austria, is definitely topographically interesting, with lots of peaks and valleys to fly in and around. Unfortunately, these textured environs are a bit plain and repetitive’”if that’s because Innsbruck is bland, we apologize to Austria, but the developer should consider some other locations. One of the greatest attributes of the desktop version of X-Plane is that you can fly anywhere in the world. It’s probably not realistic to expect worldwide travel on your handheld, but a few other environments to fly in would add depth to the experience.

Meanwhile, the simulator’s sound effects shine, especially the sound of the engine, which ramps up as you increase the throttle, and the sound of the wind rushing past the plane as you hurtle towards the ground. It adds a lot to the feeling of flight. The simulator does not have a soundtrack, but we would much rather provide our own’”perhaps “Flight of the Valkyries.” X-Plane is a good iPod audio citizen, turning off its sound when you flip the mute switch.

You might have noticed that we haven’t mentioned any sort of scores, challenges, or competitions yet. X-Plane doesn’t have any of those things, because it’s not really a game, but a simulator. It offers a pure sandbox style of entertainment, where you can experiment and challenge your skills.

To put yourself to the test, you can use the settings menu to change the time of day; wind speed and direction; amount of turbulence; cloud type and coverage; plane type; and even load up your plane with extra cargo. For a challenging takeoff, weight down the little Cessna 172 and crank up the wind. Or work on your night landings in the Cirrus Jet with heavy turbulence. These options provide a lot of replay value which isn’t immediately apparent. Still, the range of aircraft available is severely limited’”the contrast between the smallest and largest, and the fastest and slowest, isn’t that great. We’d really like to see a more diverse fleet of airplanes and more flying locations, as well as more airports in those locations.

X-Plane is not for everyone. Those hankering for competitive play should look elsewhere. However, if you’re interested in flight, or want to see a technically impressive simulator, X-Plane 9 may fit the ball, although we can’t entirely recommend the program until more aircraft and locations are added.

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